A History of Rugby

Whenever a history of rugby is mentioned, the name of William Webb Ellis will soon crop up. Ellis was a pupil of Rugby school – a town in Warwickshire – in 1823, when he flouted the rules of football as played at the school at the time, and picked up the ball and ran with it.

In reality, though, there is little evidence to support this story, and games involving a team of players trying to pass and carry a ball over a line defended by the opposition go back much further. There are records of how various English towns would celebrate a feast day by staging a game which involves propelling a ball over a long distance, with an opposing team trying to do similar in the opposite direction – the most famous of which is that which takes place every Shrove Tuesday in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

Various regional versions of the game are recorded as being played as far back as the ninth century, when the Vikings documented a game called knattleikr (don’t ask how it was pronounced!), and Cnapan was played in Wales, while Campball was commonplace in East Anglia.

Eventually, the British sense of fair play deemed that some form of rules was needed. Handling of the ball was actually allowed in the version of football played at Rugby school from the 1750s onwards, but it was almost a century later, in 1845, when the rules for a game which resemble that we know today were first drawn up.

Various games involving carrying and kicking a ball soon appeared in the country’s public schools, but the Rugby variant soon became dominant, leading to a tournament being established between the country’s leading public schools. In what was seen as an acceptance of the Rugby version of the game, the ‘Cambridge Rules’ of 1848 expressly allowed the ball to be carried in the hands at this event.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the more violent aspects of the game had to be curbed, so, in 1871, a meeting was held in London, attended by 21 clubs, at which the Rugby Football Union was formed.

Its members, in turn, formed a committee, and asked three of their number, all legal experts, to formulate a set of rules. Over the next decade, separate unions were established in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and took these rules as the template for their game.

In 1895, however, a group of teams from the north of England set the wheels rolling on a form of the game which involved compensating their players – who were mainly factory workers – for the time they had to take off to train for and play and game. Hence, the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed, which in turn refined the rules of the game, to produce their own version – rugby league.

Both versions now have massive followings around the world, and are played at many levels, the highest being regularly televised in its respective countries. And while the divide between ‘league’ and ‘union’ remains, both games succeed in attracting new generations of players to keep them going strong.

Jaimy Howard is a freelance writer interested in sport and specialising in insurance for footballers and cricket club insurance


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